How to get published

How To Get Published

I hear quite often from aspiring writers who desperately want to know how to get published. It doesn’t take a magic wand to break into the publishing world but it does take some effort. OK, it takes a whole lot of effort. I’d love to help each one of you in person. However . . . there’s only one of me and there are many of you. Which means I really can’t mentor you all. I’m sure you understand. I do mentor people on occasion, but honestly, neither I nor Tom Clancy nor the pope can help you unless you have done your homework. So first let me sketch out what that homework involves.

Your Homework: I believe strongly that you need three basic things in order to get published:

  • Content — what you have to say
  • Craft — how well you say it
  • Contacts — who you know that you can sell it to

When you have excellent content, excellent craft, and excellent contacts, you will radically improve your chances of getting published. Please remember that there are no guarantees in the publishing world. It’s a tough, tough business. But from what I’ve seen over the last couple of decades, content, craft, and connections are the three things that contribute most to success. If you are short in any of these categories, then you need to work on it until you’re excellent. That’s your homework assignment. Simple, no? Well, keep reading . . .


Developing content is easy. So easy that I never bother to teach it. All you have to do is be a genius with tons of brilliant ideas who reads, reads, reads. Presumably that describes you, approximately, so your next step is to learn the craft of writing. This is less easy, and will take the bulk of your time.


Becoming a publishable writer is a multi-year project. When a publisher buys your book, they are risking tens of thousands of dollars that you will at least break even. Would you risk that much money on someone who’d only been writing a few weeks? Neither will an editor.

Take a minute right now, please, and read my article Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Author! It will help you figure out where you are in your career. It will also tell you (in very general terms) what you need to do in order to amp up your craft and your contacts. The rest of this page will have more specific info on how to improve, but you first need to see the forest before we start talking about trees.

Now, if you’ve read the article, you know where you stand. If you’re a Freshman or Sophomore, you probably need to spend some money on a few books. For some sterling advice on which books to buy, see my page Books on Writing. I’m sorry, but it really is easier to read a few books on writing than to figure it all out for yourself. Life is too short to painfully discover the secrets of Scenes and Sequels (see Dwight Swain’s book), or using dialogue to advance conflict while revealing your character (see Sol Stein’s book). Buy the ones you need. Read them. Apply them to your writing. And watch your critique group’s eyes get wide over the next year as you slowly develop your skills.

One thing you’ll need to learn is how to write a scene. This is so important that I’ve got a page here on my site on Writing the Perfect Scene. I hope you find it helpful. It contains some of the tips I’ve given to a number of writers that have proven especially valuable.

Let’s say you’re a Sophomore or Junior or Senior, or even a published novelist. If you’ve got the basics down, I’d like to share with you my own methods for organizing my efforts. I can’t help you be more creative. I’m assuming you already are extraordinarily creative. But maybe you could use a little help in getting it all organized. In that case, let me recommend my Snowflake Method for designing a novel. I use this set of techniques for my own novels and I’m constantly refining my process.

Hundreds of thousands of people have read my Snowflake page over the years. No kidding, hundreds of thousands. People all over the world use the Snowflake Method. You may find that some of my ideas work for you and some don’t. OK, here’s a huge tip — USE THE ONES THAT WORK FOR YOU AND IGNORE THE ONES THAT DON’T. Different people are different. I don’t expect that all my methods will be gold in your grubby paws. But hey — if half my methods work out for you, that’s still an improvement, right? And if you find that it does all miraculously work out and you are suddenly writing better than you ever have before, well . . . be a doll and mention me in the acknowledgments of your Great Lithuanian Novel, OK? I won’t expect any royalties, but a brief mention of my name when you accept your Pulitzer Prize would go a long way to easing my bitterness that you got the prize and I didn’t.

How to Write a Proposal. OK, so at some point you’ve got most of the basic craft skills down and you’ve become a Junior or even a Senior. At that point, you need to learn how to write a proposal. There are several books out there. Seems like a new one comes out every year. I’ve read some of these over the years. They were a bit helpful. But truthfully, I’ve never thought much of the sample proposals they showed. I think the proposals I write are better. You may agree or you may disagree, but you can’t argue with the price. Free.

Click here for a PDF file containing most of the proposal that John Olson and I wrote for our Christy-award-winning novel, Oxygen. Be aware that we were targetting this to Christian publishers. If you’re targetting the general market, there are some obvious changes you’ll want to make in your proposal. Also, because our book is actually in print and we don’t want to spoil all the surprises, we have snipped out roughly the second half of the plot synosis. There’s enough to give you the idea of what a proposal should look like. Our editor told us this was a stellar proposal and sailed through committee. Which is kind of the point of a proposal.


There are two main ways to contact editors, if you are part of the Great Unwashed Masses who don’t have an uncle at Random House. You can either meet editors at writers’ conferences, or you can get an agent. One way to meet agents is at writers’ conferences, but you can also just contact them directly (see the usual market guides for contact info), but another way is to get a recommendation from an author who has an agent.

I sometimes recommend an author to agents I know. Please don’t write me asking me to hook you up with an agent, because here is my rule on recommendations: I ONLY recommend authors to an agent if it was my idea. If somebody asks me to set them up with an agent, my answer automatically becomes NO. If you think for five seconds, you’ll see why I have to have a rule like that. Many authors have the same rule.

Be aware that a bad agent is worse than none. A bad agent is defined as “one who does not work well with you”. Some agents work great with one author and terribly with another. You do NOT need an agent to sell your first book, but it does help — if you’ve got the right agent. The wrong agent will just slow you down, so don’t be in any big rush. And I believe that agents who charge reading fees are scammers, so I advise you to just skip those kind and deal with the ones who don’t charge.

How I Broke In To Publishing

Let me put in a plug for writers’ conferences. I spent 8 years polishing my craft and going to a small annual conference in my neighborhood. And selling nothing. I even had an agent, who assured me that it was only a matter of time, yada, yada. Finally, in 1996, after 8 years of misery, I decided to take charge of my career. I decided that I would go to the huge and famous Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference that year and that I would keep going every year until the industry buckled before the extraordinary force of my heartbreaking work of staggering genius, etc., etc. Or until they got sick of me and threw me out.

That was the right decision. By then, I had my writing skills down pretty well, but I had no contacts other than my agent. I went in 1996 and it was great. I went again in 1997 and it was better. Later that year, my agent died. I decided not to get another one. I went to Mount Hermon again in 1998, and that year I met an author on the faculty who saw that I had ten years of craft-development under my belt and I had an astoundingly good proposal. So this author wrote me a letter of recommendation to a few publishers to go atop my proposal and . . . one of them bought the book! That was a nonfiction book, but within months, I also sold my first novel, Transgression, and my career was launched. The editor for that novel, Chip MacGregor, later quit editing and became a powerhouse agent with the largest Christian literary agency, Alive Communications. He was my agent for several years, until he went back to work in a major publishing house.

I continue to go to the Mount Hermon conference every year. It is the very best Christian writing conference in the country (I may be a little biased here, but everyone agrees it is fabulous). My circle of friends–writers, editors, and agents–continues to expand. And I’ve discovered that this writing game is fun! It’s possible to get published, even if you’re a nobody who knows nobody. I did it, and a number of my friends have done it too. You can, if you’re willing to work hard and work smart.

Now you may be thinking that you’ve done everything I suggested and all you need to succeed is for me to mentor you. Oh dear. That may be a problem. Don’t get me wrong. I do mentor a few people. A very few people. Mostly, these are people who are clearly very hard workers, who have good craft, who are TEACHABLE, and most important of all, who are polite. If that describes you, then meet me at the next Mount Hermon conference and let’s talk. Although, if that describes you, and if you actually go to Mount Hermon, you probably won’t need me at all. But I’ll be happy to talk with you anyway. It’s the least I can do. See ya there and let’s celebrate your imminent success!

Other Matters

If you’ve read this far, then you probably know whether you like my whackball way of looking at the world. If you do, then I invite you to sign up for my Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, a free monthly newsletter on the craft and marketing of fiction. Sign up today and get a free 5-day e-course on How To Publish A Novel. There’s a signup form at the upper right corner of this page.

If you prefer to first read some back issues of the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, hop on over to the e-zine archives on my Advanced Fiction Writing web site dedicated solely to teaching the craft of writing fiction.

About The Author

Randy IngermansonRandy Ingermanson is a theoretical physicist and the award-winning author of six novels. He has taught at numerous writing conferences over the years and publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, the largest electronic magazine in the world on the craft of writing fiction, with over 14,000 readers.


The 10 Commandments of Fiction Writing

By: | March 11, 2008

Most experts agree that when it comes to writing fiction, no rules are carved in stone. A writer is free to bend, twist, smash or shred any of the golden platitudes of writing that have been handed down by the well-paid, well-respected writers we all hope to become. Certain writing guidelines, however, are so self-evident few writers would dispute them. When these guidelines are broken, you don’t need a burning bush to tell you your writing will suffer.

1. Take yourself seriously
This is the most crucial commandment—and the most difficult to follow. Many beginning writers feel guilty about working so hard at something for which they haven’t been paid a cent. Immediate family members or friends may look on writing as a harmless little hobby, to be encouraged only when it doesn’t interfere with their own lives. Because of the cavalier attitude of others, writers may fail to prioritize writing as a necessary part of their lives, regardless of whether or not money exchanges hands.

You must emphatically demonstrate to yourself and to others that writing is a part of who you are, not just an amusing pastime. The measure of being a writer is not how much money you make, but how important writing is in your life.

2. Act like a professional
To be taken seriously as a writer, you must act like a professional writer. That means whenever you deal with other professionals in the writing business, such as agents, editors and publishers, you should act the same as you would for a job interview, and present a professional appearance. This is especially important in cover letters and manuscript preparation.

First, proofread for grammar, punctuation and spelling errors. I have heard many editors admit they sometimes reject a manuscript within the first few pages solely due to the number of grammar, punctuation and spelling mistakes. After months or even years of hard work perfecting your story, novel or screenplay, it would be a shame to have it rejected just because you didn’t bother to check your spelling or fix a sentence fragment. And don’t rely solely on spell-checking and grammar-checking computer programs—they make errors all the time. If grammar is your weakness, then find someone, either a friend or professional, who can proof the pages for you.

Second, perfect the format. The place to be creative is in your writing style, not the manuscript format. Avoid fancy fonts. They’re distracting and hard to read. Stick to standard margins. Narrow margins crowd the page and slow the story’s pace; broad margins make it appear as though you don’t have a substantial story. Don’t design your own cover. It smacks of desperation.

Third, polish the cover letter. Just tell the editors what they need to know. That includes: (a) a brief summary of the work, one to three paragraphs, and (b) anything about yourself that might be relevant to the work (if you’re submitting a police procedural novel and you’re a journalist who worked the crime beat, that’s relevant). Avoid overhyping yourself or the work by making extravagant claims: “This will earn millions of dollars!” or “The world has never seen a novel like this before!” Hyperbole makes agents and editors less eager to work with you.

3. Write your passion
Some beginning writers try to write for whatever trend is popular. But by the time you finish your manuscript, get an agent and send your work to a publisher, the trend will be on its way out. You’re more likely to produce publishable material by writing what you’re passionate about. If you love romances, then write one. If you love mysteries, then that’s the genre for you. You don’t have to write only that genre, but as you first start out, if you write what you know, you’ll have a stronger feel for the proper conventions to include as well as the cliches and stereotypes to avoid.

Ultimately, all that matters is that you care about the material and convey that passion to the reader.

4. Love the process
If you want to become a professional fiction writer, you’d better love the writing process. That doesn’t mean you don’t have doubts, fears and an aversion to your computer. It means that despite those hesitations, you still sit down and write. Even after you’ve sold your novel, finished your book-signing tour and watched Brad Pitt star in the film version, you still have to spend most of your days at a computer. That process must thrill and delight you, since all the rest of the celebrity trappings are only a small part of what you do.

5. Read—a lot
While it’s a very good idea to know your genre, the best writers don’t limit their reading to that genre. Artists need to experience other artists’ work, which can teach and inspire as well.

When I read a fascinating novel or watch an insightful movie, I can’t wait to get back to my own writing and make it better. This also works when I read a boring novel or watch a cliched movie; then I can’t wait to make sure I haven’t made similar mistakes in my work.

Reading nonfiction is also helpful to fiction writers. I’ve been so inspired by articles on scientific discoveries, political events or historical facts that I’ve later made the ideas significant parts of my fiction works. A 10-line filler in the newspaper about the auction of Napoleon Bonaparte’s penis inspired the opening chapter of my novel Earth Angel.

6. Stick to a schedule
The main difference between successful writers and wannabe writers is not talent—it’s perseverance. They finish what they start. Create a writing schedule that works for you and stick with it. Two types of scheduling work best for most writers.

1. The Gridlock Method. Fill out a weekly grid with all your responsibilities that cannot be changed—work, school, family, etc. Find two-hour blocks on at least three days of the week that you can claim for writing. Announce to your family and friends that those are your writing hours, and you are not to be disturbed during that time except for emergencies. (Be sure to define “emergencies.”)

2. The Spare-Change Method. This method is for those whose schedules are less predictable. On a calendar, write the number of pages you intend to complete per day. Regardless of how busy you are that day, commit to staying up until that number of pages is complete.

Whichever method you use, the result will be the same: You will end up with a completed manuscript.

7. Be critical of your work
Writers live with the hope that someday they will read what they’ve written and not want to tear it up. The bad news is that the better you become as a writer, the more critical you are of your writing. The more you know about writing, the less you can tolerate bad writing (your own or others’). The good news is this critical ability will make you better. You will learn to reject the predictable and strive for invigorating style, plotting and characterization. Stop worrying that you’ll never be a good enough writer, and embrace the inner critic.

8. Develop thick skin
As a beginning writer I dreamed of the day when I would never have to face another rejection. Forty published books and 12 sold screenplays later, not a day goes by when something I’ve written or proposed to be written isn’t rejected by someone. Usually some publisher or producer buys what I’ve written, but not always. I still have a few unsold novels stashed in my garage, rejected stories and poems in my filing cabinet, script treatments on my desk.

Rejection still stings. But it doesn’t hurt as long as it used to because I have so many projects to pursue. I no longer mope around and curse the short-sightedness of a universe that fails to recognize my genius. I just work on the next project. And if the same manuscript keeps getting rejected for the same reason, I re-evaluate the work and maybe rewrite it.

9. Trust your editors
First, I’m going to broadly define editors as not only professional editors at publishing houses but also writing teachers and writing workshop members who read and offer editorial suggestions. Most editors aren’t frustrated writers—some are accomplished writers publishing more than you. In general, they have your best interests at heart. That doesn’t mean you won’t have disagreements with their suggestions. You most certainly will. You may even be right sometimes. But you will miss out on some very helpful suggestions if you refuse to listen.

The goal of most editors is to help you best realize the story you want to write. Because they come at it with fresh perspectives, they may be able to see flaws that you can’t because you’re too close to the work.

My typical first reaction to editorial suggestions is this: “What an idiot! You understand nothing of what I’m trying to say.” An hour later I think, “Maybe that’s not a completely stupid idea.” After I incorporate the idea I think, “I’m a genius to have thought of this change.” Point is, I have learned to carefully consider each suggestion. Sometimes I reject them, but many times those suggestions have significantly improved my work.

10. There are no certainties
William Goldman said it about Hollywood in his excellent primer for screenwriters, Adventures in the Screen Trade (Warner Books), but it applies equally to all writing. No one knows for sure what’s going to sell and what isn’t. If an agent from a big agency or an editor from a major publisher rejects your book saying that no one’s interested in that type of story anymore, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Think of all the “knowledgeable” studio execs who rejected Star Wars or big-shot editors who turned down The Godfather.

You must develop your own instincts about writing and have faith in them even when no one else does. That doesn’t mean you will be inflexible to suggestions, it just means you will feel confident in whatever decisions you make.


It’s William Morris’ Birthday!

William Morris (24 March 1834 – 3 October 1896) was an English textile designer, poet, novelist, translator, and socialist activist. Associated with the British Arts and Crafts Movement, he was a major contributor to the revival of traditional British textile arts and methods of production. His literary contributions helped to establish the modern fantasy genre, while he played a significant role in propagating the early socialist movement in Britain.

Born in Walthamstow, Essex, to a wealthy middle-class family, Morris came under the strong influence of medievalism while studying Classics at Oxford University, there joining the Birmingham Set. After university he trained as an architect, married Jane Burden, and developed close friendships with the Pre-Raphaelite artists Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti and with the Neo-Gothic architect Philip Webb. Webb and Morris designed a family home, Red House, then in Kent, where the latter lived from 1859 to 1865, before relocating to Bloomsbury, central London. In 1861, Morris founded a decorative arts firm with Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Webb, and others: the Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. Becoming highly fashionable and much in demand, the firm profoundly influenced interior decoration throughout the Victorian period, with Morris designing tapestries, wallpaper, fabrics, furniture, and stained glass windows. In 1875, Morris assumed total control of the company, which was renamed Morris & Co.

Although retaining a main home in London, from 1871 Morris rented the rural retreat of Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire. Greatly influenced by visits to Iceland, with Eiríkr Magnússon he produced a series of English-language translations of Icelandic Sagas. He also achieved success with the publication of his epic poems and novels, namely The Earthly Paradise (1868–1870), A Dream of John Ball (1888), the utopian News from Nowhere (1890), and the fantasy romance The Well at the World’s End (1896). In 1877 he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings to campaign against the damage caused by architectural restoration. Embracing Marxism and influenced by anarchism, in the 1880s Morris became a committed revolutionary socialist activist; after an involvement in the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), he founded the Socialist League in 1884, but broke with that organization in 1890. In 1891 he founded the Kelmscott Press to publish limited-edition, illuminated-style print books, a cause to which he devoted his final years.

Morris is recognised as one of the most significant cultural figures of Victorian Britain; though best known in his lifetime as a poet, he posthumously became better known for his designs. Founded in 1955, the William Morris Society is devoted to his legacy, while multiple biographies and studies of his work have seen publication. Many of the buildings associated with his life are open to visitors, much of his work can be found in art galleries and museums, and his designs are still in production.

Early life[edit]

Youth: 1834–52[edit]

Morris was born at Elm House in Walthamstow, Essex, on 24 March 1834.[1] Raised into a wealthy middle-class family, he was named after his father, a financier who worked as a partner in the Sanderson & Co. firm, bill brokers in the City of London.[2] His mother was Emma Morris (née Shelton), who descended from a wealthy bourgeois family from Worcester.[3] Morris was the third of his parents’ surviving children; their first child, Charles, had been born in 1827 but died four days later. Charles had been followed by the birth of two girls, Emma in 1829 and Henrietta in 1833, before William’s birth. These children were followed by the birth of siblings Stanley in 1837, Rendall in 1839, Arthur in 1840, Isabella in 1842, Edgar in 1844, and Alice in 1846.[4] The Morris family were followers of the evangelical Protestant form of Christianity, and William was baptised four months after his birth at St. Mary’s Church, Walthamstow.[5]

Water House, Morris’ childhood home; renovated in 2012, it now houses The William Morris Gallery

As a child, Morris was kept largely housebound at Elm House by his mother; there, he spent much time reading, favouring the novels of Walter Scott.[6] Aged 6, Morris moved with his family to the Georgian Italianate mansion at Woodford Hall, Woodford, Essex, which was surrounded by 50 acres of land adjacent to Epping Forest.[7] He took an interest in fishing with his brothers as well as gardening in the Hall’s grounds,[8] and spent much time exploring the Forest, where he was fascinated both by the Iron Age earthworks at Loughton Camp and Ambresbury Banks and by the Early Modern Hunting Lodge at Chingford.[9] He also took rides through the Essex countryside on his pony,[10] and visited the various churches and cathedrals throughout the country, marveling at their architecture.[11] His father took him on visits outside of the county, for instance to Canterbury Cathedral, the Chiswick Horticultural Gardens, and to the Isle of Wight, where he adored Blackgang Chine.[12] Aged 9, he was then sent to Misses Arundale’s Academy for Young Gentlemen, a nearby preparatory school; although initially riding there by pony each day, he later began boarding, intensely disliking the experience.[13]

In 1847, Morris’s father died unexpectedly. From this point, the family relied upon continued income from the copper mines at Devon Great Consols, and sold Woodford Hall to move into the smaller Water House.[14] In February 1848 Morris began his studies at Marlborough College in Marlborough, Wiltshire, where he gained a reputation as an eccentric nicknamed “Crab”. He despised his time there, being bullied, bored, and homesick.[15] He did use the opportunity to visit many of the prehistoric sites of Wiltshire, such as Avebury and Silbury Hill, which fascinated him.[16] The school was Anglican in faith and in March 1849 Morris was confirmed by the Bishop of Salisbury in the college chapel, developing an enthusiastic attraction towards the Anglo-Catholic movement and its Romanticist aesthetic.[17] At Christmas 1851, Morris was removed from the school and returned to Water House, where he was privately tutored by the Reverend Frederick B. Guy, Assistant Master at the nearby Forest School.[18]

Oxford and the Birmingham Set: 1852–56[edit]

In June 1852 Morris entered Oxford University‘s Exeter College, although since the college was full, he only went into residence in January 1853.[19] He disliked the college and was bored by the manner in which they taught him Classics.[20] Instead he developed a keen interest in Medieval history and Medieval architecture, inspired by the many Medieval buildings in Oxford.[21] This interest was tied to Britain’s growing Medievalist movement, a form of Romanticism that rejected many of the values of Victorian industrial capitalism.[22] For Morris, the Middle Ages represented an era with strong chivalric values and an organic, pre-capitalist sense of community, both of which he deemed preferable to his own period.[23] This attitude was compounded by his reading of Thomas Carlyle‘s book Past and Present (1843), in which Carlyle championed Medieval values as a corrective to the problems of Victorian society.[24] Under this influence, Morris’s dislike of contemporary capitalism grew, and he came to be influenced by the work of Christian socialists Charles Kingsley and Frederick Denison Maurice.[25]

At the college, Morris met fellow first-year undergraduate Edward Burne-Jones, who became his lifelong friend and collaborator. Although from very different backgrounds, they found that they had a shared attitude to life, both being keenly interested in Anglo-Catholicism and Arthurianism.[26] Through Burne-Jones, Morris joined a group of undergraduates from Birmingham who were studying at Pembroke College: William Fulford, Richard Watson Dixon, Charles Faulkner, and Cormell Price. They were known among themselves as the “Brotherhood” and to historians as the Birmingham Set.[27] Morris was the most affluent member of the Set, and was generous with his wealth toward the others.[28] Like Morris, the Set were fans of the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and would meet together to recite the plays of William Shakespeare.[29]

William Morris self-portrait, 1856; Morris grew his beard that year, after leaving university.[30]

Morris was heavily influenced by the writings of the art critic John Ruskin, being particularly inspired by his chapter “On the Nature of Gothic Architecture” in the second volume of The Stones of Venice; he later described it as “one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century”.[31] Morris adopted Ruskin’s philosophy of rejecting the tawdry industrial manufacture of decorative arts and architecture in favour of a return to hand-craftsmanship, raising artisans to the status of artists, creating art that should be affordable and hand-made, with no hierarchy of artistic mediums.[32][33] Ruskin had achieved attention in Victorian society for championing the art of a group of painters who had emerged in London in 1848 calling themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Pre-Raphaelite style was heavily Medievalist and Romanticist, emphasising abundant detail, intense colours and complex compositions; it greatly impressed Morris and the Set.[34] Influenced both by Ruskin and by John Keats, Morris began to spend more time writing poetry, in a style that was imitative of much of theirs.[35]

Both he and Burne-Jones were influenced by the Romanticist milieu and the Anglo-Catholic movement, and decided to become clergymen in order to found a monastery where they could live a life of chastity and dedication to artistic pursuit, akin to that of the contemporary Nazarene movement. However, as time went on Morris became increasingly critical of Anglican doctrine and the idea faded.[36] In summer 1854, Morris travelled to Belgium to look at Medieval paintings,[37] and in July 1855 went with Burne-Jones and Fulford across northern France, visiting Medieval churches and cathedrals.[38] It was on this trip that he and Burne-Jones committed themselves to “a life of art”.[39] For Morris, this decision resulted in a strained relationship with his family, who believed that he should have entered either commerce or the clergy.[40] On a subsequent visit to Birmingham, Morris discovered Thomas Malory‘s Le Morte d’Arthur, which became a core Arthurian text for him and Burne-Jones.[41] In January 1856, the Set began publication of The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, designed to contain “mainly Tales, Poetry, friendly critiques and social articles”. Mainly funded by Morris, who briefly served as editor and heavily contributed to it with his own stories, poems, reviews and articles, the magazine lasted for twelve issues, and garnered praise from Tennyson and Ruskin.[42]

Apprenticeship, the Pre-Raphaelites, and marriage: 1856–59[edit]

Morris’s painting La belle Iseult, also inaccurately called Queen Guinevere, is his only surviving easel painting, now in the Tate Gallery, 1858.

Having passed his finals and been awarded a BA, Morris began an apprenticeship with the Oxford-based Neo-Gothic architect George Edmund Street in January 1856. His apprenticeship focused on architectural drawing, and there he was placed under the supervision of the young architect Philip Webb, who became a close friend.[43] Morris soon relocated to Street’s London office, in August 1856 moving into a flat in Bloomsbury, Central London with Burne-Jones, an area perhaps chosen for its avant-garde associations.[44] Morris was fascinated by London but dismayed at its pollution and rapid expansion into neighbouring countryside, describing it as “the spreading sore”.[45]

Morris became increasingly fascinated with the idyllic Medievalist depictions of rural life which appeared in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, and spent large sums of money purchasing such artworks. Burne-Jones shared this interest, but took it further by becoming an apprentice to one of the foremost Pre-Raphaelite painters, Dante Gabriel Rossetti; the three soon became close friends.[46] Through Rossetti, Morris came to associate with poet Robert Browning, and the artists Arthur Hughes, Thomas Woolner, and Ford Madox Brown.[47] Tired of architecture, Morris abandoned his apprenticeship, with Rossetti persuading him to take up painting instead, which he chose to do in the Pre-Raphaelite style.[48] Morris aided Rossetti and Burne-Jones in painting the Arthurian murals at Oxford Union, although his contributions were widely deemed inferior and unskilled compared to those of the others.[49] At Rossetti’s recommendation, Morris and Burne-Jones moved in together to the flat at Bloomsbury’s No. 17 Red Lion Square by November 1856. Morris designed and commissioned furniture for the flat in a Medieval style, much of which he painted with Arthurian scenes in a direct rejection of mainstream artistic tastes.[50]

Morris also continued writing poetry and began designing illuminated manuscripts and embroidered hangings.[51] In March 1857, Bell and Dandy published a book of Morris’s poems, The Defence of Guenevere, which was largely self-funded by the author himself. It did not sell well and garnered few reviews, most of which were unsympathetic. Disconcerted, Morris would not publish again for a further eight years.[52] In October 1857 Morris met Jane Burden, a woman from a poor working-class background, at a theatre performance and asked her to model for him. Smitten with her, they entered into a relationship and were engaged in spring 1858; Burden would later admit however that she never loved Morris.[53] They were married in a low-key ceremony held at St Michael at the North Gate church in Oxford on 26 April 1859, before honeymooning in Bruges, Belgium, and settling temporarily at 41 Great Ormond Street, London.[54]

Career and fame[edit]

Red House and the Firm: 1859–65[edit]

Red House in Bexleyheath; it is now owned by The National Trust and open to visitors

Morris desired a new home for himself and his wife, resulting in the construction of the Red House in the Kentish hamlet of Upton near Bexleyheath, ten miles from central London. The building’s design was a co-operative effort, with Morris focusing on the interiors and the exterior being designed by Webb, for whom the House represented his first commission as an independent architect.[55] Named for the red bricks and red tiles from which it was constructed, Red House rejected architectural norms by being L-shaped.[56] Influenced by various forms of contemporary Neo-Gothic architecture, the House was nevertheless unique,[57] with Morris describing it as “very mediaeval in spirit”.[58] Situated within an orchard, the house and garden were intricately linked in their design.[59] It took a year to construct,[60] and cost Morris £4000 at a time when his fortune was greatly reduced by a dramatic fall in the price of his shares.[61] Burne-Jones described it as “the beautifullest place on Earth.”[62]

After construction, Morris invited friends to visit, most notably Burne-Jones and his wife Georgina, as well as Rossetti and his wife Lizzie Siddal.[63] They aided him in painting murals on the furniture, walls, and ceilings, much of it based on Arthurian tales, the Trojan War, and Geoffrey Chaucer‘s stories, while he also designed floral embroideries for the rooms.[64] They also spent much time playing tricks on each other, enjoying games like hide and seek, and singing while accompanied by the piano.[65] Siddall stayed at the House during summer and autumn 1861 as she recovered from a traumatic miscarriage and an addiction to laudanum; she would die of an overdose in February 1862.[66]

In April 1861, Morris founded a decorative arts company, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., with six other partners: Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Webb, Ford Madox Brown, Charles Faulkner, and Peter Paul Marshall. Operating from premises at No. 6 Red Lion Square, they referred to themselves as “the Firm” and were intent on adopting Ruskin’s ideas of reforming British attitudes to production. They hoped to reinstate decoration as one of the fine arts and adopted an ethos of affordability and anti-elitism.[67] For additional staff, they employed boys from the Industrial Home for Destitute Boys in Euston, central London, many of whom were trained as apprentices.[68]

Although working within the Neo-Gothic school of design, they differed from Neo-Gothic architects like Gilbert Scott who simply included certain Gothic features on modern styles of building; instead they sought to return completely to Medieval Gothic methods of craftmanship.[69] The products created by the Firm included furniture, architectural carving, metalwork, stained glass windows, and murals.[70] Their stained glass windows proved a particular success in the firm’s early years as they were in high demand for the surge in the Neo-Gothic construction and refurbishment of churches, many of which were commissioned by the architect George Frederick Bodley.[71] Despite Morris’s anti-elitist ethos, the Firm soon became increasingly popular and fashionable with the bourgeoisie, particularly following their exhibit at the 1862 International Exhibition in South Kensington, where they received press attention and medals of commendation.[72] However, they faced much opposition from established design companies, particularly those belonging to the Neo-Classical school.[73]

Design for Trellis wallpaper, 1862

Morris was slowly abandoning painting, recognising that his work lacked a sense of movement; none of his paintings are dated later than 1862.[74] Instead he focused his energies on designing wallpaper patterns, the first being “Trellis”, designed in 1862. His designs would be produced from 1864 by Jeffrey and Co. of Islington, who created them for the Firm under Morris’s supervision.[75] Morris also retained an active interest in various groups, joining the Hogarth Club, the Mediaeval Society, and the Corps of Artist Volunteers, the latter being in contrast to his later pacifism.[76]

Meanwhile, Morris’s family continued to grow. In January 1861, Morris and Janey’s first daughter was born: named Jane Alice Morris, she was commonly known as “Jenny”.[77] Jenny was followed in March 1862 by the birth of their second daughter, Mary “May” Morris.[78] Morris was a caring father to his daughters, and years later they both recounted having idyllic childhoods.[79] However, there were problems in Morris’s marriage as Janey became increasingly close to Rossetti, who often painted her. It is unknown if their affair was ever sexual, although by this point other members of the group were noticing Rossetti and Janey’s closeness.[80]

Imagining the creation of an artistic community at Upton, Morris helped develop plans for a second house to be constructed adjacent to Red House in which Burne-Jones could live with his family; the plans were abandoned when Burne-Jones’ son Philip died from scarlet fever.[81] By 1864, Morris had become increasingly tired of life at Red House, being particularly unhappy with the 3 to 4 hours spent commuting to his London workplace on a daily basis.[82] He sold Red House, and in autumn 1865 moved with his family to No. 26 Queen Square in Bloomsbury, the same building that the Firm moved its base of operations to earlier in the summer.[83]

Queen Square and The Earthly Paradise: 1865–70[edit]

Portrait of William Morris by George Frederic Watts, 1870.

At Queen Square, the Morris family lived in a flat directly above the Firm’s shop.[84] They were joined by Janey’s sister Bessie Burton and a number of household servants.[85] Meanwhile, changes were afoot at the Firm as Faulkner left, and to replace him they employed a business manager, Warrington Taylor, who would remain with them till 1866. Taylor pulled the Firm’s finances into order and spent much time controlling Morris and ensuring that he worked to schedule.[86] During these years the Firm carried out a number of high-profile designs; from September 1866 to January 1867, they redecorated the Armoury and Tapestry Room in St. James’ Palace,[87] in the latter year also designing the Green Dining Room at the South Kensington Museum (it is now the Morris Room at the Victoria and Albert Museum).[88] The Firm’s work received increasing interest from people in the United States, resulting in Morris’s acquaintance with Henry James and Charles Eliot Norton.[89] However, despite its success, the Firm was not turning over a large net profit, and this, coupled with the decreasing value of Morris’ stocks, meant that he had to decrease his spending.[90]

Janey’s relationship with Rossetti had continued, and by the late 1860s gossip regarding their affair had spread about London, where they were regularly seen spending time together.[91] Morris biographer Fiona MacCarthy argued that it was likely that Morris had learned of and accepted the existence of their affair by 1870.[92] In this year he developed an affectionate friendship with Aglaia Coronie, the daughter of wealthy Greek refugees, although there is no evidence that they had an affair.[93] Meanwhile, Morris’s relationship with his mother had improved, and he would regularly take his wife and children to visit her at her house in Leyton.[94] He also went on various holidays; in the summer of 1866 he, Webb, and Taylor toured the churches of northern France.[95]

A caricature sketch of Morris by Rossetti, “The Bard and Petty Tradesman”, reflecting his behaviour at the Firm

In August 1866 Morris joined the Burne-Jones family on their holiday in Lymington, while in August 1867 both families holidayed together in Oxford.[96] In August 1867 the Morrises holidayed in Southwold, Suffolk,[97] while in the summer of 1869 Morris took his wife to Bad Ems in Rhineland-Palatinate, central Germany, where it was hoped that the local health waters would aid her ailments. While there, he enjoyed walks in the countryside and focused on writing poetry.[98]

Morris had continued to devote much time to writing poetry. In 1867 Bell and Dandy published Morris’s epic poem, The Life and Death of Jason, at his own expense. The book was a retelling of the ancient Greek myth of the hero Jason and his quest to find the Golden Fleece. In contrast to Morris’s former publication, The Life and Death of Jason was well received, resulting in the publishers paying Morris a fee for the second edition.[99] From 1865 to 1870, Morris worked on another epic poem, The Earthly Paradise. Designed as a homage to Chaucer, it consisted of 24 stories, adopted from an array of different cultures, and each by a different narrator; set in the late 14th century, the synopsis revolved around a group of Norsemen who flee the Black Death by sailing away from Europe, on the way discovering an island where the inhabitants continue to venerate the ancient Greek gods. Published in four parts by F. S. Ellis, it soon gained a cult following and established Morris’ reputation as a major poet.[100]

Kelmscott Manor and Iceland: 1870–75[edit]

Main Entrance to Kelmscott Manor

By 1870, Morris had become a public figure in Britain, resulting in repeated press requests for photographs, which he despised.[101] That year, he also reluctantly agreed to sit for a portrait by establishment painter George Frederic Watts.[102] Morris was keenly interested in Icelandic literature, having befriended the Icelandic theologian Eiríkr Magnússon. Together they produced prose translations of the Eddas and Sagas for publication in English.[103] Morris also developed a keen interest in creating hand-written illuminated manuscripts, producing 18 such books between 1870 and 1875, the first of which was A Book of Verse, completed as a birthday present for Georgina Burne-Jones. 12 of these 18 were handwritten copies of Nordic tales such as Halfden the Black, Frithiof the Bold, and The Dwellers of Eyr. Morris deemed calligraphy to be an art form, and taught himself both Roman and italic script, as well as learning how to produce gilded letters.[104] In November 1872 he published Love is Enough, a poetic drama based on a story in the Medieval Welsh text, the Mabinogion. Illustrated with Burne-Jones woodcuts, it was not a popular success.[105] By 1871, he had begun work on a novel set in the present, The Novel on Blue Paper, which was about a love triangle; it would remain unfinished and Morris later asserted that it was not well written.[106]

By early summer 1871, Morris began to search for a house outside London where his children could spend time away from the city’s pollution. He settled on Kelmscott Manor in the village of Kelmscott, Oxfordshire, obtaining a joint tenancy on the building with Rossetti in June.[107] Morris adored the building, which was constructed circa 1570, and would spend much time in the local countryside.[108] Conversely, Rossetti would be unhappy at Kelmscott, and eventually suffered a mental breakdown.[109] Morris divided his time between London and Kelmscott, however when Rossetti was there he would not spend more than three days at a time at the latter.[110] He was also fed up with his family home in Queen Square, deciding to obtain a new house in London. Although retaining a personal bedroom and study at Queen Square, he relocated his family to Horrington House in Turnham Green Road, West London, in January 1873.[111] This allowed him to be far closer to the home of Burne-Jones, with the duo meeting on almost every Sunday morning for the rest of Morris’ life.[112]

Morris’ Acanthus wallpaper design, (1875, left) and a page from Morris’ illuminated manuscript of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Leaving Jane and his children with Rossetti at Kelmscott, in July 1871 Morris left for Iceland with Faulkner, W.H. Evans, and Magnússon. Sailing from the Scottish port of Granton aboard a Danish mail boat, they proceeded to the island via Tórshavn in the Faroe Islands before arriving at Reykjavik, where they disembarked. There they met the President of the Althing, Jón Sigurðsson, with Morris being sympathetic to the Icelandic independence movement. From there, they proceeded by Icelandic horse along the south coast to Bergþórshvoll, Thórsmörk, Geysir, Þingvellir, and then back to Reyjkavik, where they departed back to Britain in September.[113] In April 1873, Morris and Burne-Jones holidayed in Italy, visiting Florence and Siena. Although generally disliking the country, Morris was interested in the Florentine Gothic architecture.[114] Soon after, in July, Morris returned to Iceland, revisiting many of the sites he had previously seen, but then proceeding north to Varna glacier and Fljótsdalur.[115] His two visits to the country profoundly influenced him, in particular in his growing leftist opinions; he would comment that these trips made him realise that “the most grinding poverty is a trifling evil compared with the inequality of classes.”[116]

Morris and Burne-Jones then spent time with one of the Firm’s patrons, the wealthy George Howard, 9th Earl of Carlisle and his wife Rosalind, at their Medieval home in Naworth Castle, Cumberland.[117] In July 1874, the Morris family then took Burne-Jones’ two children with them on their holiday to Bruges, Belgium.[118] However, by this point Morris’ friendship with Rossetti had seriously eroded, and in July 1874 their acrimonious falling out led Rossetti to leave Kelmscott, with Morris’ publisher F.S. Ellis taking his place.[119] With the company’s other partners drifting off to work on other projects, Morris decided to consolidate his own control of the Firm and become sole proprietor and manager. In March 1875, he paid £1000 each in compensation to Rossetti, Brown, and Marshall, although the other partners waived their claims to financial compensation. That month, the Firm was officially disbanded and replaced by Morris & Co, although Burne-Jones and Webb would continue to produce designs for it in future.[120] This accomplished, he resigned his directorship of the Devon Great Consols, selling his remaining shares in the company.[121]

Textile experimentation and political embrace: 1875–80[edit]

Two of Morris’ designs: Snakeshead printed textile (1876) and “Peacock and Dragon” woven wool furnishing fabric (1878)

Now in complete control of the Firm, Morris took an increased interest in the process of textile dyeing and entered into a co-operative agreement with Thomas Wardle, a silk dyer who operated the Hencroft Works in Leek, Staffordshire. As a result, Morris would spend time with Wardle at his home on various occasions between summer 1875 and spring 1878.[122] Deeming the colours to be of inferior quality, Morris rejected the chemical aniline dyes which were then predominant, instead emphasising the revival of organic dyes, such as indigo for blue, walnut shells and roots for brown, and cochineal, kermes, and madder for red.[123] Living and working in this industrial environment, he gained a personal understanding of production and the lives of the proletariat, and was disgusted by the poor living conditions of workers and the pollution caused by industry; these factors greatly influenced his political views.[124] After learning the skills of dyeing, in the late 1870s Morris turned his attention to weaving, experimenting with silk weaving at Queen’s Square.[125]

In the Spring of 1877, the Firm opened a store at No. 449 Oxford Street and obtained new staff who were able to improve its professionalism; as a result, sales increased and its popularity grew.[126] By 1880, Morris & Co. had become a household name, having become very popular with Britain’s upper and middle classes.[127] The Firm was obtaining increasing numbers of commissions from aristocrats, wealthy industralists, and provincial entrepreneurs, with Morris furnishing parts of St. James’ Palace and the chapel at Eaton Hall.[128] As a result of his growing sympathy for the working-classes and poor, Morris felt personally conflicted in serving the interests of these individuals, privately describing it as “ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich”.[127]

Continuing with his literary output, Morris translated his own version of Virgil‘s Aeneid, titling it The Aeneids of Vergil (1876). Although many translations were already available, often produced by trained Classicists, Morris claimed that his unique perspective was as “a poet not a pedant”.[129] He also continued producing translations of Icelandic tales with Magnússon, including Three Northern Love Stories (1875) and Völuspa Saga (1876).[130] In 1877 Morris was approached by Oxford University and offered the largely honorary position of Professor of Poetry. He declined, asserting that he felt unqualified, knowing little about scholarship on the theory of poetry.[131]

In summer 1876 Jenny Morris was diagnosed with epilepsy. Refusing to allow her to be societally marginalised or institutionalised, as was common in the period, Morris insisted that she be cared for by the family.[132] When Janey took May and Jenny to Oneglia in Italy, the latter suffered a serious seizure, with Morris rushing to the country to see her. They then proceeded to visit a number of other cities, including Venice, Padua, and Verona, with Morris attaining a greater appreciation of the country than he had on his previous trip.[133] In April 1879 Morris moved the family home again, this time renting an 18th-century mansion on Hammersmith‘s Upper Mall in West London. Owned by the novelist George MacDonald, Morris would name it Kelmscott House and re-decorate it according to his own taste.[134] In the House’s grounds he set up a workshop, focusing on the production of hand-knotted carpets.[135] Excited that both of his homes were along the course of the River Thames, in August 1880 he and his family took a boat trip along the river from Kelmscott House to Kelmscott Manor.[136]

Portrait of William Morris by William Blake Richmond

Morris became politically active in this period, coming to be associated with the radicalist current within British liberalism. He joined the Eastern Question Association (EQA) and was appointed the group’s treasurer in November 1876. EQA had been founded by campaigners associated with the centre-left Liberal Party who opposed Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli‘s alliance with the Ottoman Empire; the Association highlighted the Ottoman massacre of Bulgarians and feared that the alliance would lead Disraeli to join the Ottomans in going to war with the Russian Empire.[137] Morris took an active role in the EQA campaign, authoring the lyrics for the song “Wake, London Lads!” to be sung at a rally against military intervention.[138] Morris eventually became disillusioned with the EQA, describing it as being “full of wretched little personalities”.[139] He nevertheless joined a regrouping of predominantly working-class EQA activists, the National Liberal League, becoming their treasurer in summer 1879; the group remained small and politically ineffective, with Morris resigning as treasurer in late 1881, shortly before the group’s collapse.[140]

However, his discontent with the British liberal movement grew following the election of the Liberal Party’s William Ewart Gladstone to the Premiership in 1880. Morris was particularly angered that Gladstone’s government did not reverse the Disraeli regime’s occupation of the Transvaal, introduced the Coercion Bill, and oversaw the Bombardment of Alexandria.[141] Morris later related that while he had once believed that “one might further real Socialistic progress by doing what one could on the lines of ordinary middle-class Radicalism”, following Gladstone’s election he came to realise “that Radicalism is on the wrong line, so to say, and will never develope [sic] into anything more than Radicalism: in fact that it is made for and by the middle classes and will always be under the control of rich capitalists.[142]

In 1876, Morris visited Burford Church in Oxfordshire, where he was appalled at the restoration conducted by his old mentor, G.E. Street. He recognised that these programs of architectural restoration led to the destruction or major alteration of genuinely old features in order to replace them with “sham old” features, something which appalled him.[143] To combat the increasing trend for restoration, in March 1877 he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), which he personally referred to as “Anti-Scrape”. Adopting the role of honorary secretary and treasurer, most of the other early members of SPAB were his friends, while the group’s program was rooted in Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849).[144] As part of SPAB’s campaign, Morris tried to build connections with art and antiquarian societies and the custodians of old buildings, and also contacted the press to highlight his cause. He was particularly strong in denouncing the ongoing restoration of Tewkesbury Abbey and was vociferous in denouncing the architects responsible, something that deeply upset Street.[145] Turning SPAB’s attention abroad, in Autumn 1879 Morris launched a campaign to protect St Mark’s Basilica in Venice from restoration, garnering a petition with 2000 signatures, among whom were Disraeli, Gladstone, and Ruskin.[146]

Later life[edit]

Merton Abbey and the Democratic Federation: 1881–84[edit]

The Pond at Merton Abbey by Lexden Lewis Pocock is an idyllic representation of the works in the time of Morris

In summer 1881, Morris took out a lease on the seven-acre former silk weaving factory at Merton Abbey Mills, in Merton, Southwest London. Relocating his workshops to the site, the premises were used for weaving, dyeing, and creating stained glass; within three years, 100 craftsmen would be employed there.[147] Working conditions at the Abbey were better than at most Victorian factories. However, despite Morris’s ideals, there was little opportunity for the workers to display their own individual creativity.[148] Morris had initiated a system of profit sharing among the Firm’s upper clerks, however this did not include the majority of workers, who were instead employed on a piecework basis. Morris was aware that, in retaining the division between employer and employed, the company failed to live up to his own egalitarian ideals, but defended this, asserting that it was impossible to run a socialist company within a competitive capitalist economy.[149] The Firm itself was expanding, opening up a store in Manchester in 1883 and holding a stand at that year’s Foreign Fair in Boston.[150]

Janey’s relationship with Rossetti had continued through a correspondence and occasional visits, although she found him extremely paranoid and was upset by his addiction to chloral. She last saw him in 1881, and he died in April the following year.[151] Morris described his mixed feelings toward his deceased friend by stating that he had “some of the very greatest qualities of genius, most of them indeed; what a great man he would have been but for the arrogant misanthropy which marred his work, and killed him before his time”.[152] In August 1883, Janey would be introduced to the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, with whom she embarked on a second affair, which Morris might have been aware of.[153]

In January 1881 Morris was involved in the establishment of the Radical Union, an amalgam of radical working-class groups which hoped to rival the Liberals, and became a member of its executive committee.[154] However, he soon rejected liberal radicalism completely and moved toward socialism.[155] In this period, British socialism was a small, fledgling and vaguely defined movement, with only a few hundred adherents. Britain’s first socialist party, the Democratic Federation (DF), had been founded by Henry Hyndman, an adherent of the socio-political ideology of Marxism, with Morris joining the DF in January 1883.[156] Morris began to read voraciously on the subject of socialism, including Henry George‘s Progress and Poverty, Alfred Russel Wallace‘s Land Nationalisation, and Karl Marx‘s Das Kapital, although admitted that Marx’s economic analysis of capitalism gave him “agonies of confusion on the brain”. Instead he preferred the writings of William Cobbett and Sergius Stepniak, although he also read the critique of socialism produced by John Stuart Mill.[157]

David’s Charge to Solomon (1882), a stained-glass window by Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris in Trinity Church, Boston, Massachusetts.

In May 1883, Morris was appointed to the DF’s executive, and was soon elected to the position of treasurer.[158] Devoting himself to the socialist cause, he regularly lectured at meetings across Britain, hoping to gain more converts, although was regularly criticised for doing so by the mainstream press.[159] In November 1883 he was invited to speak at University College, Oxford, on the subject of “Democracy and Art” and there began espousing socialism; this shocked and embarrassed many members of staff, earning national press coverage.[160] With other DF members, he travelled to Blackburn, Lancashire in February 1884 amid the great cotton strike, where he lectured on socialism to the strikers.[161] The following month he marched in a central London demonstration commemorating the first anniversary of Marx’s death and the thirteenth anniversary of the Paris Commune.[162]

Morris aided the DF using his artistic and literary talents; he designed the group’s membership card,[163] and helped author their manifesto, Socialism Made Plain, in which they demanded improved housing for workers, free compulsory education for all children, free school meals, an eight-hour working day, the abolition of national debt, nationalisation of land, banks, and railways, and the organisation of agriculture and industry under state control and co-operative principles.[158] Some of his DF comrades found it difficult to reconcile his socialist values with his position as proprietor of the Firm, although he was widely admired as a man of integrity.[164] The DF began publishing a weekly newspaper, Justice, which soon faced financial losses that Morris covered. Morris also regularly contributed articles to the newspaper, in doing so befriending another contributor, George Bernard Shaw.[165]

His socialist activism monopolised his time, forcing him to abandon a translation of the Persian Shahnameh.[166] It also led to him seeing far less of Burne-Jones, with whom he had strong political differences; although once a republican, Burne-Jones had become increasingly conservative, and felt that the DF were exploiting Morris for his talents and influence.[167] While Morris devoted much time to trying to convert his friends to the cause, of Morris’ circle of artistic comrades, only Webb and Faulkner fully embraced socialism, while Swinburne expressed his sympathy with it.[168]

In 1884 the DF renamed itself the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and underwent an internal reorganisation. However, the group was facing an internal schism between those (such as Hyndman), who argued for a parliamentary path toward socialism, and those (like Morris) who deemed the Houses of Parliament intrinsically corrupt and capitalist. Personal issues between Morris and Hyndman were exacerbated by their attitude to British foreign policy; Morris was staunchly anti-imperialist while Hyndman expressed patriotic sentiment encouraging some foreign intervention.[169] The division between the two groups developed into open conflict, with the majority of activists sharing Morris’ position. In December 1884 Morris and his supporters – most notably Ernest Belfort Bax and Edward Aveling – left the SDF; the first major schism of the British socialist movement.[170]

Socialist League: 1884–89[edit]

Left: the cover of the Socialist League’s manifesto of 1885 featured art by Morris. Right: detail of Woodpecker tapestry, 1885.

In December 1884, Morris founded the Socialist League (SL) with other SDF defectors.[171] He composed the SL’s manifesto with Bax, describing their position as that of “Revolutionary International Socialism”, advocating proletarian internationalism and world revolution while rejecting the concept of socialism in one country.[172] In this, he committed himself to “making Socialists” by educating, organising, and agitating to establish a strong socialist movement; calling on activists to boycott elections, he hoped that socialists would take part in a proletariat revolution and help to establish a socialist society.[173] Bax taught Morris more about Marxism, and introduced him to Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels; Engels thought Morris honest but lacking in practical skills to aid the proletariat revolution.[174] Morris remained in contact with other sectors of London’s far left community, being a regular at the socialist International Club in Shoreditch, East London,[175] however he avoided the recently created Fabian Society, deeming it too middle-class.[176] Although a Marxist, he befriended prominent anarchist activists Stepniak and Peter Kropotkin,[177] and came to be influenced by their anarchist views, to the extent that biographer Fiona MacCarthy described his approach as being “Marxism with visionary libertarianism”.[178]

As the leading figure in the League Morris embarked on a series of speeches and talks on street corners, in working men’s clubs, and in lecture theatres across England and Scotland.[179] He also visited Dublin, there offering his support for Irish nationalism,[180] and formed a branch of the League at his Hammersmith house.[97] By the time of their first conference in July 1885, the League had eight branches across England and had affiliations with several socialist groups in Scotland.[181] However, as the British socialist movement grew it faced increased opposition from the establishment, with police frequently arresting and intimidating activists. To combat this, the League joined a Defence Club with other socialist groups, including the SDF, for which Morris was appointed treasurer.[182] Morris was passionate in denouncing the “bullying and hectoring” that he felt socialists faced from the police, and on one occasion was arrested after fighting back against a police officer; a magistrate dismissed the charges.[183] The Black Monday riots of February 1886 led to increased political repression against left-wing agitators, and in July Morris was arrested and fined for public obstruction while preaching socialism on the streets.[184]

Morris oversaw production of the League’s monthly—soon to become weekly—newspaper, Commonweal, serving as its editor for six years, during which time he kept it financially afloat. First published in February 1885, it would contain contributions from such prominent socialists as Engels, Shaw, Paul Lafargue, Wilhelm Liebknecht, and Karl Kautsky, with Morris also regularly writing articles and poems for it.[185] In Commonweal he serialised a 13-episode poem, The Pilgrims of Hope, which was set in the period of the Paris Commune.[186] From November 1886 to January 1887, Morris’ novel, A Dream of John Ball, was serialised in Commonweal. Set in Kent during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, it contained strong socialist themes although proved popular among those of different ideological viewpoints, resulting in its publication in book form by Reeves and Turner in 1888.[187] Shortly after, a collection of Morris’ essays, Signs of Change, was published.[188]

Our business[…] is the making of Socialists, i.e. convincing people that Socialism is good for them and is possible. When we have enough people of that way of thinking, they will find out what action is necessary for putting their principles in practice. Therefore, I say, make Socialists. We Socialists can do nothing else that is useful.”

— William Morris.[189]

From January to October 1890, Morris serialised his novel, News from Nowhere, in Commonweal, resulting in improved circulation for the paper. In March 1891 it was published in book form, before being translated into French, Italian, and German by 1898 and becoming a classic among Europe’s socialist community. Combining utopian socialism and soft science fiction, the book tells the tale of a contemporary socialist, William Guest, who falls asleep and awakes in the mid-20th century, discovering a future society based on common ownership and democratic control of the means of production. In this society there is no private property, no big cities, no authority, no monetary system, no divorce, no courts, no prisons, and no class systems; it was a depiction of Morris’ ideal socialist society.[190]

Morris had also continued with his translation work; in April 1887, Reeves and Turner published the first volume of Morris’ translation of Homer‘s Odyssey, with the second following in November.[191] Venturing into new territory, Morris also authored and starred in a play, The Tables Turned; Or Nupkins Awakened, which was performed at a League meeting in November 1887. It told the story of socialists who are put on trial in front of a corrupt judge; the tale ends with the prisoners beind freed by a proletariat revolution.[192] In June 1889, Morris traveled to Paris as the League’s delegate to the International Socialist Working Men’s Congress, where his international standing was recognised by being chosen as English spokesman by the Congress committee. The Second International emerged from the Congress, although Morris was distraught at its chaotic and disorganised proceedings.[193]

At the League’s Fourth Conference in May 1888, factional divisions became increasingly apparent between Morris’ anti-parliamentary socialists, the parliamentary socialists, and the anarchists; the Bloomsbury Branch were expelled for supporting parliamentary action.[194] Under the leadership of Charles Mowbray, the League’s anarchist wing were growing and called on the League to embrace violent action in trying to overthrow the capitalist system.[195] By autumn 1889 the anarchists had taken over the League’s executive committee and Morris was stripped of the editorship of Commonweal in favour of the anarchist Frank Kitz.[196] This alienated Morris from the League, which had also become a financial burden for him; he had been subsidising its activities with £500 a year, a very large sum of money at the time.[197] By the autumn of 1890, Morris left the Socialist League, with his Hammersmith branch seceding to become the independent Hammersmith Socialist Society in November 1890.[198]

The Kelmscott Press and Morris’ final years: 1889–96[edit]

Morris (right) with Burne-Jones, 1890

The work of Morris & Co. continued during Morris’s final years, producing an array of stained glass windows designed by Burne-Jones and the six narrative tapestry panels depicting the quest for the Holy Grail for Stanmore Hall, Shropshire.[199] Morris’s influence on Britain’s artistic community became increasingly apparent as the Art Workers’ Guild was founded in 1884, although, at the time, he was too preoccupied with his socialist activism to pay it any attention. Although the proposal faced some opposition, Morris would be elected to the Guild in 1888, and was elected to the position of master in 1892.[200] Morris similarly did not offer initial support for the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, but changed his opinion after the success of their first exhibit, held in Regents Street in October 1888. Giving lectures on tapestries for the group, in 1892 he would be elected president.[201] At this time, Morris also re-focused his attentions on SPAB campaigning; those causes he championed including the preservation of St. Mary’s Church in Oxford, Blythburgh Church in Suffolk, Peterborough Cathedral, and Rouen Cathedral.[202]

Although his socialist activism had decreased, he remained involved with the Hammersmith Socialist Society, and in October 1891 oversaw the creation of a short-lived newsletter, the Hammersmith Socialist Record.[203] Coming to oppose factionalism within the socialist movement, he sought to rebuild his relationship with the SDF, appearing as a guest lecturer at some of their events, and supporting SDF candidate George Lansbury when he stood in the Wandsworth by-election of February 1894.[204] In 1893 the Hammersmith Socialist Society co-founded the Joint Committee of Socialist Bodies with representatives of the SDF and Fabian Society; Morris helped draw up its “Manifesto of English Socialists”.[205] He offered support for far left activists on trial, including a number of militant anarchists whose violent tactics he nevertheless denounced.[206] He also began using the term “communism” for the first time, stating that “Communism is in fact the completion of Socialism: when that ceases to be militant and becomes triumphant, it will be communism.”[207] In December 1895 he gave his final open-air talk at Stepniak’s funeral, where he spoke alongside prominent far left activists Eleanor Marx, Kier Hardie, and Errico Malatesta.[208] Liberated from internal factional struggles, he retracted his anti-Parliamentary position and worked for socialist unity, giving his last public lecture in January 1896 on the subject of “One Socialist Party.”[33]

In December 1888, the Chiswick Press published Morris’ The House of the Wolfings, a fantasy story set in Iron Age Europe which provides a reconstructed portrait of the lives of Germanic-speaking Gothic tribes. It contained both prose and aspects of poetic verse.[209] A sequel, The Roots of the Mountains, followed in 1890.[210] Over the coming years he would publish a string of other poetic works; The Story of the Glittering Plain (1890), The Wood Beyond the World (1894), The Well at the World’s End (1896), The Water of the Wondrous Isles (1897) and The Sundering Flood (1898).[211] He also embarked on a translation of the Anglo-Saxon tale, Beowulf; because he could not fully understand Old English, his poetic translation was based largely on that already produced by A.J. Watts. On publication, Morris’ Beowulf would be critically panned.[212] Following the death of the sitting Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in October 1892, Morris was offered the position, but turned it down, disliking its associations with the monarchy and political establishment; instead the position went to Alfred Austin.[213]

Morris’ design for the Kelmscott Press’ trademark

In January 1891, Morris began renting a cottage near to Kelmscott House, No. 16 Upper Mall in Hammersmith, which would serve as the first premises of the Kelmscott Press, before relocating to the neighbouring No. 14 in May, that same month in which the company was founded. Devoted to the production of books which he deemed beautiful, Morris was artistically influenced by the illustrated manuscripts and early printed books of Medieval and Early Modern Europe.[214] Before publishing its first work, Morris ensured that he had mastered the techniques of printing and secured supplies of hand-made paper and vellum which would be necessary for production.[215] Over the next seven years, they would publish 66 volumes.[216] The first of these would be one of Morris’ own novels, The Story of the Glittering Plain, which was published in May 1891 and soon sold out. The Kelmscott Press would go on to publish 23 of Morris’ books, more than those of any other author.[217] The press also published editions of works by Keats, Shelley, Ruskin, and Swinburne, as well as copies of various Medieval texts.[218] A number of the Press’ books contained illustrations provided by Burne-Jones.[219] The Press’ magnum opus would be the Kelmscott Chaucer, which had taken years to complete and included 87 illustrations from Burne-Jones.[220] Morris still remained firmly in an employer relation with those working at the Press, although organised outings for them and paid them above average wages.[221]

By the early 1890s, Morris was increasingly ill and living largely as an invalid; aside from his gout, he also exhibited signs of epilepsy.[222] In August 1891, he took his daughter Jenny on a tour of Northern France to visit the Medieval churches and cathedrals.[223] Back in England, he spent an increasing amount of time at Kelmscott Manor.[224] Seeking treatment from the prominent doctor William Broadbent, he was prescribed a holiday in the coastal town of Folkestone.[225] In December 1894 he was devastated upon learning of his mother’s death; she had been 90 years old.[226] In July 1896, he went on a cruise to Norway with construction engineer John Carruthers, during which he visited Vadsö and Trondheim; during the trip his physical condition deteriorated and he began experiencing hallucinations.[227] Returning to Kelmscott House, he became a complete invalid, being visited by friends and family, before dying of tuberculosis on the morning of 4 October 1896.[228] Obituaries appearing throughout the national press reflected that, at the time, Morris was widely recognised primarily as a poet. Mainstream press obituaries trivialised or dismissed his involvement in socialism, although the socialist press focused largely on this aspect of his career.[229] His funeral was held on 6 October, during which his corpse was carried from Hammersmith to Paddington rail station, where it was transported to Oxford, and from there to Kelmscott, where it was buried in the churchyard of St. George’s Church.[230]

Personal life[edit]

Morris’ biographer E.P. Thompson described him as having a “robust bearing, and a slight roll in his walk”, alongside a “rough beard” and “disordered hair”.[231] The author Henry James described Morris as “short, burly, corpulent, very careless and unfinished in his dress … He has a loud voice and a nervous restless manner and a perfectly unaffected and businesslike address. His talk indeed is wonderfully to the point and remarkable for clear good sense.”[231] Morris’ first biographer Mackail described him as being both “a typical Englishman” and “a typical Londoner of the middle class” albeit one who was transformed into “something quite individual” through the “force of his genius”.[232] MacCarthy described Morris’ lifestyle as being “late Victorian, mildly bohemian, but bourgeois”,[233] with Mackail commenting that he exhibited many of the traits of the bourgeois Victorian class: “industrious, honest, fair-minded up their lights, but unexpansive and unsympathetic”.[234] Although he generally disliked children,[235] Morris also exhibited a strong sense of responsibility toward his family.[61] Mackail nevertheless thought he “was interested in things much more than in people” and that while he did have “lasting friendships” and “deep affections”, he did not allow people to “penetrate to the central part of him.”[236]

Politically, Morris was a staunch revolutionary socialist and anti-imperialist,[237] and although raised a Christian he came to identify as a non-religious atheist.[238] He came to reject state socialism and large centralized control, instead emphasising localised administration within a socialist society.[239] Later political activist Derek Wall suggested that Morris could be classified as an ecosocialist.[240] Morris was greatly influenced by Romanticism, with Thompson asserting that Romanticism was “bred into his bones, and formed his early consciousness.”[241] Thompson argued that this “Romantic Revolt” was part of a “passionate protest against an intolerable social reality”, that of the industrial capitalism of Britain’s Victorian era. However, he believed that it led to little more than a “yearning nostalgia or a sweet complaint” and that Morris only became “a realist and a revolutionary” when he adopted socialism in 1882.[242] However, Mackail was of the opinion that Morris had an “innate Socialism” which had “penetrated and dominated all he did” throughout his life.[243] Given the conflict between his personal and professional life and his socio-political views, MacCarthy described Morris as “a conservative radical”.[244]

Morris’s behaviour was often erratic.[245] He was of a nervous disposition, and throughout his life relied on networks of male friends to aid him in dealing with this.[76] Morris’ friends nicknamed him “Topsy” after a character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.[246] He had a wild temper, and when sufficiently enraged could suffer seizures and blackouts.[247] Rossetti was known to taunt Morris with the intention of trying to enrage him for the amusement of himself and their other friends.[248] Biographer Fiona MacCarthy suggests that Morris might have suffered from a form of Tourette’s syndrome as he exhibited some of the symptoms.[249] In later life he suffered from gout, a common complaint among middle-class males in the Victorian period.[250] Morris’s ethos was that one should “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”[251] He also held to the view that “No work which cannot be done with pleasure in the doing is worth doing”,[252] and adopted as his personal motto “If I can” from the fifteenth-century Flemish painter Jan van Eyck.[253]



Left: The Nature of Gothic by John Ruskin, printed by Kelmscott Press. First page of text, with typical ornamented border. Right: Troilus and Criseyde, from the Kelmscott Chaucer. Illustration by Burne-Jones and decorations and typefaces by Morris.

William Morris was a prolific writer of poetry, fiction, essays, and translations of ancient and medieval texts. His first poems were published when he was 24 years old, and he was polishing his final novel, The Sundering Flood, at the time of his death. His daughter May’s edition of Morris’s Collected Works (1910–1915) runs to 24 volumes, and two more were published in 1936.[254]

Morris began publishing poetry and short stories in 1856 through the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine which he founded with his friends and financed while at university. His first volume, The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems (1858), was the first book of Pre-Raphaelite poetry to be published.[254] The dark poems, set in a sombre world of violence, were coolly received by the critics, and he was discouraged from publishing more for a number of years. “The Haystack in the Floods“, one of the poems in that collection, is probably now one of his better-known poems. It is a grimly realistic piece set during the Hundred Years War in which the doomed lovers Jehane and Robert have a last parting in a convincingly portrayed rain-swept countryside.[254] One early minor poem was “Masters in this Hall” (1860), a Christmas carol written to an old French tune.[255] Another Christmas-themed poem is “The Snow in the Street”, adapted from “The Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon” in The Earthly Paradise.[256]

Morris met Eiríkr Magnússon in 1868, and began to learn the Icelandic language from him. Morris published translations of The Saga of Gunnlaug Worm-Tongue and Grettis Saga in 1869, and the Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs in 1870. An additional volume was published under the title of Three Northern Love Stories in 1873.[254][257]

In the last nine years of his life, Morris wrote a series of imaginative fictions usually referred to as the “prose romances”.[258] These novels – including The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World’s End – have been credited as important milestones in the history of fantasy fiction, because, while other writers wrote of foreign lands, or of dream worlds, or the future (as Morris did in News from Nowhere), Morris’s works were the first to be set in an entirely invented fantasy world.[259] These were attempts to revive the genre of medieval romance, and written in imitation of medieval prose. Morris’s prose style in these novels has been praised by Edward James, who described them as “among the most lyrical and enchanting fantasies in the English language.”[260]

On the other hand, L. Sprague de Camp considered Morris’s fantasies to be not wholly successful, partly because Morris eschewed many literary techniques from later eras.[261] In particular, De Camp argued the plots of the novels are heavily driven by coincidence; while many things just happened in the romances, the novels are still weakened by the dependence on it.[262] Nevertheless, large subgenres of the field of fantasy have sprung from the romance genre, but indirectly, through their writers’ imitation of William Morris.[263]

Early fantasy writers like Lord Dunsany, E. R. Eddison[264] and James Branch Cabell[265] were familiar with Morris’s romances. The Wood Beyond the World is considered to have heavily influenced C. S. LewisNarnia series, while J. R. R. Tolkien was inspired by Morris’s reconstructions of early Germanic life in The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains. The young Tolkien attempted a retelling of the story of Kullervo from the Kalevala in the style of The House of the Wolfings;[266] Tolkien considered much of his literary work to have been inspired by an early reading of Morris, even suggesting that he was unable to better Morris’s work; the names of characters such as “Gandolf” and the horse Silverfax appear in The Well at the World’s End.

Sir Henry Newbolt’s medieval allegorical novel, Aladore, was influenced by Morris’s fantasies. [267] James Joyce also drew inspiration from his work.[268]

Textile design[edit]

Left: Cabbage and vine tapestry, 1879. Right: Design for “Tulip and Willow” indigo-discharge wood-block printed fabric, 1873.

During his lifetime, Morris produced items in a range of crafts, mainly those to do with furnishing,[269] including over 600 designs for wall-paper, textiles, and embroideries, over 150 for stained glass windows, three typefaces, and around 650 borders and ornamentations for the Kelmscott Press.[253] He emphasised the idea that the design and production of an item should not be divorced from one another, and that where possible those creating items should be designer-craftsmen, thereby both designing and manufacturing their goods.[270] In the field of textile design, Morris revived a number of dead techniques,[271] and insisted on the use of good quality raw materials, almost all natural dyes, and hand processing.[272] He also observed the natural world first hand to gain a basis for his designs,[273] and insisted on learning the techniques of production prior to producing a design.[273]

Mackail asserted that Morris became “a manufacturer not because he wished to make money, but because he wished to make the things he manufactured.”[274] Morris & Co.’s designs were fashionable among Britain’s upper and middle-classes, with biographer Fiona MacCarthy asserting that they had become “the safe choice of the intellectual classes, an exercise in political correctitude.”[275] The company’s unique selling point was the range of different items that it produced, as well as the ethos of artistic control over production that it emphasised.[276]

It is likely that much of Morris’s preference for medieval textiles was formed – or crystallised – during his brief apprenticeship with G. E. Street. Street had co-written a book on Ecclesiastical Embroidery in 1848, and was a staunch advocate of abandoning faddish woolen work on canvas in favour of more expressive embroidery techniques based on Opus Anglicanum, a surface embroidery technique popular in medieval England.[277]

He was also fond of hand knotted Persian carpets[278] and advised the South Kensington Museum in the acquisition of fine Kerman carpets.[279]

Morris taught himself embroidery, working with wool on a frame custom-built from an old example. Once he had mastered the technique he trained his wife Jane, her sister Bessie Burden and others to execute designs to his specifications. When “embroideries of all kinds” were offered through Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. catalogues, church embroidery became and remained an important line of business for its successor companies into the twentieth century.[280] By the 1870s, the firm was offering both embroidery patterns and finished works. Following in Street’s footsteps, Morris became active in the growing movement to return originality and mastery of technique to embroidery, and was one of the first designers associated with the Royal School of Art Needlework with its aim to “restore Ornamental Needlework for secular purposes to the high place it once held among decorative arts.”[281]

Morris took up the practical art of dyeing as a necessary adjunct of his manufacturing business. He spent much of his time at Staffordshire dye works mastering the processes of that art and making experiments in the revival of old or discovery of new methods. One result of these experiments was to reinstate indigo dyeing as a practical industry and generally to renew the use of those vegetable dyes, such as the red derived from madder, which had been driven almost out of use by the anilines. Dyeing of wools, silks, and cottons was the necessary preliminary to what he had much at heart, the production of woven and printed fabrics of the highest excellence; and the period of incessant work at the dye-vat (1875–76) was followed by a period during which he was absorbed in the production of textiles (1877–78), and more especially in the revival of carpet-weaving as a fine art.[257][282]

Morris’s patterns for woven textiles, some of which were also machine made under ordinary commercial conditions, included intricate double-woven furnishing fabrics in which two sets of warps and wefts are interlinked to create complex gradations of colour and texture.[283] Morris long dreamed of weaving tapestries in the medieval manner, which he called “the noblest of the weaving arts.” In September 1879 he finished his first solo effort, a small piece called “Cabbage and Vine”.[284][285]


Morris family tombstone at Kelmscott, designed by Webb

President of the William Morris Society Hans Brill referred to Morris as “one of the outstanding figures of the nineteenth century”,[286] while Linda Parry termed him the “single most important figure in British textile production”.[271] At the time of Morris’ death, his poetry was known internationally and his company’s products were found all over the world.[287] In his lifetime, he was best known as a poet, although by the late twentieth-century he was primarily known as a designer of wallpapers and fabrics.[286]

He was a major contributor to the revival of traditional British textile arts and methods of production.[288] Morris’ ethos of production was an influence on Bauhaus.[289] Another aspect of Morris’s preservationism was his desire to protect the natural world from the ravages of pollution and industrialism, causing some historians of the green movement to regard Morris as an important forerunner of modern environmentalism.[290][291]

Aymer Vallance was commissioned to produce the first biography of Morris, published in 1897, after Morris’ death, as per the latter’s wishes.[292] This presented the creation of SPAB as Morris’ greatest achievement.[293] Morris’s next biographer was Burne-Jones’ son-in-law John William Mackail, who authored the two-volume Life of William Morris (1899) in which he provided a sympathetic portrayal of Morris that largely omitted his political activities, treating them as a passing phase that Morris overcame.[294]

MacCarthy’s biography, William Morris: A Life for Our Time, was first published in 1994 and a paperback edition was published by Faber & Faber in 2010.[295] For the 2013 Venice Biennale, artist Jeremy Deller selected Morris as the subject of a large-scale mural titled “We Sit Starving Amidst our Gold”, in which Morris returns from the dead to hurl the yacht of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich into the waves of an ocean.[296][297]

MacCarthy curated the “Anarchy & Beauty” exhibition—a commemoration of Morris’ legacy—for the National Portrait Gallery in 2014, for which she recruited around 70 artists who were required to undertake a test regarding Morris’ News from Nowhere to be accepted.[296] Writing for the Guardian prior to the opening of the exhibition on 16 October 2014, MacCarthy asserted:

Morris has exerted a powerful influence on thinking about art and design over the past century. He has been the constant niggle in the conscience. How can we combat all this luxury and waste? What drove him into revolutionary activism was his anger and shame at the injustices within society. He burned with guilt at the fact that his “good fortune only” allowed him to live in beautiful surroundings and to pursue the work he adored.[296]

“Anarchy & Beauty”‘s arts and crafts section featured Morris’ own copy of the French edition of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital handbound in a gold-tooled leather binding that MacCarthy describes as “the ultimate example of Morris’s conviction that perfectionism of design and craftsmanship should be available to everyone.”[296]

Politics and the English Language

Politics and the English Language


MOST PEOPLE WHO BOTHER with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent, and our language–so the argument runs–must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.
Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer. Meanwhile, here are five specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.
These five passages have not been picked out because they are especially bad–I could have quoted far worse if I had chosen–but because they illustrate various of the mental vices from which we now suffer. They are a little below the average, but are fairly representative samples. I number them so that I can refer back to them when necessary:
(1) I am not, indeed, sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had not become, out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien (sic) to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate.

PROFESSOR HAROLD LASKI (Essay in Freedom of Expression) (2) Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes such egregious collocations of vocables as the Basic put up with for tolerate or put at a loss for bewilder.

PROFESSOR LANCELOT HOGBEN (Interglossa) (3) On the one side we have the free personality; by definition it is not neurotic, for it has neither conflict nor dream. Its desires, such as they are, are transparent, for they are just what institutional approval keeps in the forefront of consciousness; another institutional pattern would alter their number and intensity; there is little in them that is natural, irreducible, or culturally dangerous. But on the other side, the social bond itself is nothing but the mutual reflection of these self-secure integrities. Recall the definition of love. Is not this the very picture of a small academic? Where is there a place in this hall of mirrors for either personality or fraternity?

ESSAY ON PSYCHOLOGY in Politics (New York) (4) All the “best people” from the gentlemen’s clubs, and all the frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror of the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoisie to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis.

COMMUNIST PAMPHLET (5) If a new spirit is to be infused into this old country, there is one thorny and contentious reform which must be tackled, and that is the humanization and galvanization of the B.B.C. Timidity here will bespeak canker and atrophy of the soul. The heart of Britain may lee sound and of strong beat, for instance, but the British lion’s roar at present is like that of Bottom in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream–as gentle as any sucking dove. A virile new Britain cannot continue indefinitely to be traduced in the eyes, or rather ears, of the world by the effete languors of Langham Place, brazenly masquerading as “standard English.” When the Voice of Britain is heard at nine o’clock, better far and infinitely less ludicrous to hear aitches honestly dropped than the present priggish, inflated, inhibited, school-ma’am-ish arch braying of blameless bashful mewing maidens.

LETTER IN Tribune Each of these passages has faults of its own, but quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house. I list below, with notes and examples, various of the tricks by means of which the work of prose-construction is habitually dodged:
Dying metaphors. A newly-invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g., iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgels for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, an axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a “rift,” for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would be aware of this, and would avoid perverting the original phrase.
Operators, or verbal false limbs. These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are: render inoperative, militate against, prove unacceptable, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, having the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve the purpose of, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purposes verb as prove, serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de- formations, and banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un- formation.

Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, having regard to, the fact that, by dint of, in view of, in the interests of, on the hypothesis that; and the ends of sentences are saved from anti-climax by such resounding commonplaces as greatly to be desired, cannot be left out of account, a development to be expected in the near future, deserving of serious consideration, brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and so on and so forth.
Pretentious diction. Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basis, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments. Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid processes of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic color, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, mailed fist, trident, sword, shield, buckler, banner, jackboot, clarion. Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien regime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, gleichschaltung, weltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g., and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in English. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers.

1 The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.) consists largely of words and phrases translated from Russian, German or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use a Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the -ize formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (de-regionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.
1 An interesting illustration of this is the way in which the English flower names which were in use till very recently are being ousted by Greek ones, snap-dragon becoming antirrhinum, forget-me-not becoming myosotis, etc. It is hard to see any practical reason for this change of fashion: it is probably due to an instinctive turning-away from the more homely word and a vague feeling that the Greek word is scientific.
Meaningless words. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.2 Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, “The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality,” while another writes, “The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness, the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of régime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Pétain was a true patriot, The Soviet Press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary bourgeois, equality. 2

Example: “Comfort’s catholicity of perception and image, strangely Whitmanesque in range, almost the exact opposite in aesthetic compulsion, continues to evoke that trembling atmospheric accumulative hinting at a cruel, an inexorably serene timelessness . . . Wrey Gardiner scores by aiming at simple bullseyes with precision. Only they are not so simple, and through this contented sadness runs more than the surface bittersweet of resignation.” (Poetry Quarterly.) Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. Here it is in modern English:
Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account. This is a parody, but not a very gross one. Exhibit (3), above, for instance, contains several patches of the same kind of English. It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations–race, battle, bread–dissolve into the vague phrase “success or failure in competitive activities.” This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing–no one capable of using phrases like objective consideration of contemporary phenomena”–would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains 49 words but only 60 syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains 38 words of 90 syllables: 18 of its words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase (“time and chance”) that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its 90 syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do not want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes.
As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing, is that it is easy. It is easier–even quicker, once you have the habit–to say In my opinion it is a not unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences, since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry–when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech–it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash–as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot–it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking. Look again at the examples I gave at the beginning of this essay.

Professor Laski (1) uses five negatives in 53 words. One of these is superfluous, making nonsense of the whole passage, and in addition there is the slip alien for akin, making further nonsense, and several avoidable pieces of clumsiness which increase the general vagueness. Professor Hogben (2) plays ducks and drakes with a battery which is able to write prescriptions, and, while disapproving of the everyday phrase put up with, is unwilling to look egregious up in the dictionary and see what it means. (3), if one takes an uncharitable attitude towards it, is simply meaningless: probably one could work out its intended meaning by reading the whole of the article in which it occurs. In (4), the writer knows more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink. In (5), words and meaning have almost parted company. People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning–they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another–but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying. A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you–even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent-and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.
In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line.” Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White Papers and the speeches of under-secretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases–bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder–one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.

Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.”

Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:
While freely conceding that the Soviet régime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.
The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were instinctively, to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find–this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify–that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years as a result of dictatorship.
But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow. Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against. By this morning’s post I have received a pamphlet dealing with conditions in Germany. The author tells me that he “felt impelled” to write it. I open it at random, and here is almost the first sentence that I see: “[The Allies] have an opportunity not only of achieving a radical transformation of Germany’s social and political structure in such a way as to avoid a nationalistic reaction in Germany itself, but at the same time of laying the foundations of a cooperative and unified Europe.” You see, he “feels impelled” to write–feels, presumably, that he has something new to say–and yet his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern. This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.
I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable. Those who deny this would argue, if they produced an argument at all, that language merely reflects existing social conditions, and that we cannot influence its development by any direct tinkering with words and constructions. So far as the general tone or spirit of a language goes, this may be true, but it is not true in detail. Silly words and expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority. Two recent examples were explore every avenue and leave no stone unturned, which were killed by the jeers of a few journalists. There is a long list of fly-blown metaphors which could similarly be got rid of if enough people would interest themselves in the job; and it should also be possible to laugh the not un- formation out of existence,3 to reduce the amount of Latin and Greek in the average sentence, to drive out foreign phrases and strayed scientific words, and, in general, to make pretentiousness unfashionable. But all these are minor points. The defense of the English language implies more than this, and perhaps it is best to start by saying what it does not imply.
3 One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.
To begin with, it has nothing to do with archaism, with the salvaging of obsolete words and turns of speech, or with the setting-up of a “standard-English” which must never be departed from. On the contrary, it is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear, or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or with having what is called a “good prose style.”

On the other hand it is not concerned with fake simplicity and the attempt to make written English colloquial. Nor does it even imply in every case preferring the Saxon word to the Latin one, though it does imply using the fewest and shortest words that will cover one’s meaning. What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing, you probably hunt about till you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures or sensations. Afterwards one can choose–not simply accept–the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.
These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable. One could keep all of them and still write bad English, but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted in these five specimens at the beginning of this article.
I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language-and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists–is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable. and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase–some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno or other lump of verbal refuse–into the dustbin where it belongs.

Ticking Clock or Option Exhaustion: 2 Ways To Bring Your Novel To A Crisis By Glen C. Strathy

Ticking Clock or Option Exhaustion: 2 Ways To Bring Your Novel To A Crisis By Glen C. Strathy

Ticking clock and option exhaustion are two techniques you can use to put limits on your plot and at the same time create tension that will drive your story towards its crisis. You can use either one or a combination of both, depending on what type of story you are telling.

The Ticking Clock….

The first type of limit is most commonly used in action-based stories such as thrillers. The technique is to give the protagonist a set amount of time by which to achieve the Story Goal or else suffer the Consequence.

Generally, you create tension by not allowing your protagonist to achieve the goal until the very last second (which is also the crisis of the story). We call this type of limit a ticking clock. Some classic story ideas that use a ticking clock are…An evil villain has left a timebomb hidden somewhere that is set to explode. The protagonist must disable the bomb in time. The kidnappers have threatened to kill the hostage unless they receive the ransom by a certain time. The protagonist’s goal is to rescue the hostage before the clock runs out.The heroes have a certain number of days to reach their destination or accomplish a task or else they lose everything.

A natural disaster is about to occur, and the town must be evacuated in time. An enemy is approaching and the heroes must find and bring back help before their people are killed. 7 Dramatica Theory calls this type of limit a “timelock,” and it is an excellent way to keep your plot under control. For instance, if you give your characters a 24-hour ticking clock, you know all the events of your story must take place within that timeframe. Of course, you can get around this using flashbacks etc., but the ticking clock puts a clear boundary around main action of the story. No matter how many pages the book has, the reader knows that the climax will arrive when the time runs out.The ticking clock also creates a feeling of urgency and anxiety in the reader. Generally, you introduce the ticking clock early in the novel.

Then you insert forewarnings at various points that show the reader how much time is left on the clock. (For more on Forewarnings, see “The 8 Elements of Plot.”) You can further increase the tension by having the main character’s problems escalate as the time elapses. This makes the reader increasingly concerned whether the problem will be solved in time. Obviously, this device is less suited to stories that are based on deliberation or character rather than than action, so if you’re writing the former, you may prefer the second type of limit.

Option Exhaustion…

Some stories are more about making the right choice than accomplishing a task within a time limit.

For instance, in a murder mystery, your detective’s boss might want her to arrest someone quickly and will be happy if there’s enough circumstantial evidence to get a conviction. But the detective most likely wants to be certain she arrests the right person, no matter how much time it takes. In such stories, the protagonist is under pressure to make the correct choice from among the available options. Using the “option exhaustion” technique, you give your protagonist a limited number of possibilities rather than a limited amount of time. The plot revolves around the process of exploring each possibility in order to narrow down the list. For example…The killer must be one of six people, so the detective interviews each in turn. As evidence is gathered, some suspects can be discounted.The treasure may be hidden in one of four places, so the treasure-hunters explore each one in turn.

The heroine is looking for Mr. Right, and explores relationships with the three or four men who recently stumbled into her life.The prosecution has decided to call 5 witnesses, and the defence lawyer must try to discredit each in turn.The heroine does everything to win her father’s respect – good grades, good job, winning awards, etc. without success.The hero tries various ways to get the woman he loves to go out with him, until he achieves his ultimate success or failure.

Obviously, you must not give the protagonist too many options to explore, otherwise the plot will start to drag. Your detective should not have to interview a thousand suspects, nor should you depict your heroine dating hundreds of eligible men before finding her perfect mate. At the same time, you don’t want the correct solution to be apparent too soon. The reader must arrive at the climax of the novel not knowing what the main character will do or should do. For instance…Perhaps the main character will exhaust all apparent options ahead of the crisis, and only in his most desperate moment see or devise another option. Perhaps the main character will walk into the crisis not knowing which of two options is correct and only arrives at the right choice at the last second. In some classic murder mysteries, no suspect is truly eliminated before the climax. Instead, the detective confronts all the suspects at once and eliminates them one by one until finally naming the real criminal.

The main character could also reach the climax knowing the right choice, only to have a new unexpected problem arise that makes the outcome less than certain. In each of these scenarios, the crisis in an option exhaustion story is the moment when the ultimate choice is made. Of course, some novels use a combination of these devices. An author may write an option exhaustion story, but throw in a ticking clock near the crisis in an attempt to create more tension. Sometimes, the ticking clock will be present throughout the story, but at the moment of crisis the story suddenly becomes more about making the right choice. A great example of a combination that works is the Agatha Christie story, 10 Little Indians (also known as And Then There Were None).

This story has been done as a play, a film, and a novel. In the story, ten people are lured to an island for a weekend getaway. When they arrive, they find a message from the host telling them that he believes they all committed a crime for which they were not punished, and that he plans to administer justice by killing them all. One by one, guests are then murdered. Since there are only 10 people on the island, one of them must be the host/murderer in disguise, but the murders are done in secret, so the survivors never see who the killer is. So, in this story, the optionlock is the limited number of possible murderers. As each person is killed, the options narrow.

We know that eventually there will be just two people on the island: the main character and the murderer, and we will know who the murderer is. At the same time, we also know that the supply boat is scheduled to arrive Monday morning, so there is also a timelock. The main character must try to survive until the boat arrives. While Christie makes the combination work very well, Dramatica theory, and my own feeling as well, is that combinations are a bit of a cheat – an attempt to get the best of both worlds. If the crisis is about a decision, then a ticking clock can be a distraction. After all, running out of time is not the real problem. Similarly, an option dilemma at the end of a story about meeting a deadline just muddies the waters. In Christie’s story, the optionlock is the primary limit. The timelock turns out to be false, for a very logical reason which I don’t want to say because it would spoil the story for you.

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How to Brainstorm: Give Your Brain Free Rein

How to Brainstorm: Give Your Brain Free Rein

Fire Up Your Writing BrainIt’s a new year, and the perfect time to recommit yourself to your writing life. Whether you’re still working on your same project, or just opening a fresh notebook or Word document to start a new one, it can be intimidating when you hit a mental block. And that means it’s always a good time to do a little brainstorming about your project—even if that’s a word that you (like myself) might dread.

Below is an excerpt from Susan Reynolds’ Fire Up Your Writing Brain, a comprehensive guide for keeping your brain firing on all cylinders at every stage of the writing process. The book will help you identify the type of writer you are, develop writing models that accelerate your learning curve, hardwire your brain for endurance and increased productivity, learn to edit your manuscript on both a macro and micro level, recharge a lagging brain to gain an extra burst of creativity, and more. This particular passage will talk about specific things you can brainstorm about for your writing, and how to kick off the brainstorming process.


We’ve all heard about brainstorming, and we’ve likely all used it, typically when writing essays and reports in school. You likely had a teacher who showed you how to write down the central idea and then create balloons as offshoots to brainstorm ideas for flushing out, illustrating, or refuting the central idea. It may also spark creativity if you incorporate color and use curved or artistic lines from the primary balloon to the offshoots. Using pictures you found in magazines or that you sketch yourself may also spur ideas. This sort of mind mapping exercise (you can find lots of images online) may feel cliché, but, in fact, it remains effective.

But it’s also true a brainstorm occurs when massive amounts of stimulation (you providing input) produce a tightly woven web of neurons that can be ignited to make writing go well. One way to create a brainstorm and fire up your writing brain is to sit down with pen and paper and start generating as many ideas as you think of related to the story you want to tell.

[5 Opportunities to Increase Your Writing Productivity (Without Actually Writing)]

Gather Your Brainstorming Tools

First, focus your mind and your brain on what you’re going to write and about—and why you are eager to make a massive brain investment in completing the work. When you make clear your intentions, your brain is ripe for the sort of brainstorming that results in plot, characters, theme, structure, setting, and whatever else you need to contemplate to get this story on paper. There are a number of software programs you could use to facilitate this process (and plenty of writers like them), but there’s scientific evidence that the old-fashioned way—writing with pen and paper—taps into slow thinking, which is beneficial at this stage.

Spiral sketchbooks with big, white, blank pages—with texture and space—can be very appealing to your senses and can leave your brain feeling like it has plenty of space to roam; that is, it can fill those spaces with brilliant ideas. Some, like me, prefer blue ink pens with a fine-tip point that lets the words flow across those big, white, blank spaces. Many writers have always loved pen and paper and probably still enjoy spending time in stationary stores (lucky you, if there’s still one near you) selecting paper and pens.

Go on an Artist Date

Julia Cameron, author of thirty books on creativity, developed the idea of going on “an artist date.” This doesn’t mean you go out with another artist, it means you take the artist in you somewhere special, choosing an activity that stimulates your creativity by bringing your artistic self pleasure—examples would be a luxurious day spent exploring a museum or writing at the New York Public Library. Pilgrimages to the homes of famous writers and attending readings are often inspirational. Some writers love running their hands and eyes over handcrafted papers, leather journals, or delighting over writing accouterments (mini typewriters, plumed pens, paperweights), admiring items that appeal purely to their sense of touch and beauty—and somehow speak to their writing ambitions. If you adore old-fashioned pens and fancy an expensive one, spend a few hours selecting and then gifting yourself the writing tools you deserve—in this way rewarding your creativity. Cameron’s books on the creative process are full of ideas. Some of my other favorites include The Right to Write and The Vein of Gold.

Writer's Guide to Persistence

A Writer’s Guide to Persistence teaches authors how
to sustain their writing habit, weather rejection, avoid
discouragement and embrace the writing journey.

Create the Time and Space for Brainstorming

Once you’re ready to fire up your brain, begin wherever you have the most heat, the element that has been driving you to write this particular story, that keeps it in the forefront of your mind, whether it’s a compelling situation, a particularly fascinating character, a dramatic and overarching theme, or the climactic and memorable ending. Give yourself at least a two-hour block of uninterrupted time to do nothing more than focus on the expansion of your primary idea. To write a novel, you need an idea that will keep your brain engaged and that can sustain the kind of depth that makes novels and longer works of art necessary, but these ideas often start small and expand as the writer works her magic.

Break it Down and Be Specific

Write down the inciting thought (what attracted your brain to this particular character, situation, or story) and then branch off from there, jotting down any ideas that arise. Don’t overthink, just let the thoughts flow, and write down anything that pops in. I suggest starting with the big picture items, such as the basic premise, theme, main characters (and their relationship to each other), and the genre, and giving each one a full page for an expansion of ideas. Big picture elements to break down include the following:

  • Basic Premise: What is the story about? What happens? What does it prove, or at least illustrate? Why is telling it important? What’s unique about your angle?
  • Theme: Once you have clarified your premise, brainstorm related ideas, extensions, and contradictions. What is the primary message you want to convey in writing this particular story? Which elements (the setting, point of view, the antagonist, the plot and subplot, etc.) will elucidate, amplify, or contradict the theme? What offshoots or subplots are possible?
  • Style/Genre/Tone: Will it be a comedy or a tragedy? Will it be a young adult novel or a high concept thriller? Will it take place in contemporary times or be historical? Will it be told in first person or third person, subjective, with multiple points-of-view, or only one? No need to narrow it down, but do think about it as your brain may serve up a lovely surprise when you do. This is when you might also decide that your novel or prose poem might work better as a screenplay.

[How to Increase Your Writing Creativity by Doing Nothing]

  • Protagonist/Main Character/Hero: Who will be the primary character, the one who propels the story forward? Create a list of this person’s characteristics relevant to what happens in the story. What will serve your protagonist, and what will hamper or sabotage his progression? What is his primary dilemma? What will make the hero unique and unforgettable?
  • Antagonist/Supporting Character/Villain: Who will thwart your hero’s efforts at every turn? Create a list of the villain’s characteristics relevant to the story. What will make this person the perfect foil for your hero? Note: Sometimes the antagonist is the protagonist’s own personality or character failings, such as his inner conflict, a drug addiction, or cowardice.
  • The Ending: What happens as a result of what your protagonist does to overcome his challenges? Knowing how your story ends will not only provide lots of ideas and color everything that happens within the story, it will provide the impetus to write.

At this point, keep asking yourself what the story is about and what needs to happen. Concentrate on the broader aspects, but write down any subplots, characters, or scene ideas that occur—and they will. Avoid falling too deeply into one aspect, as doing so may deflect you from creating the broader strokes. When the session feels complete, tuck all the pages away and think about something else. Do, however, thank your brain for being brilliant—and reward it with a glass of wine, a hot bath, or a piece of chocolate perfection.


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Write Like Charles Dickens

Write Like Charles Dickens

Fiction Writing Master ClassCharles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is an absolute classic, particularly around this time of year. And even if you don’t want to write exactly like Dickens, there’s something—a technique, an idea, a theme, etc.—that every writer can pull from Dickens’ writing.

The following is an excerpt from William Cane’s Fiction Writing Master Class, which walks you through Dickens’ method, and what you can learn from his writing. His book covers 21 classic authors and the types of techniques and tips you can pick up from reading—and studying—their writing. From William Faulkner to Ray Bradbury, and Stephen King to Herman Melville, this book mines the writing secrets of exceptional authors and shows you how to use them to develop a writing style that stands out in the crowd.

“Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait,” was Dickens’s motto and his method. The techniques used in the execution of this method bear careful scrutiny for they were integral to the work of the master storyteller. Unfortunately, the use of humor escapes many writers today, especially those who seek to write serious fiction. Eschewing low humor, they mistakenly neglect the high. Dickens was a master of high humor—satire, puns, wordplay, and a curious method of characterizing that poked fun at his own creations even as he fleshed them out with life and a persona all their own.

Make Them Laugh

The humor in Dickens begins with the little touches in character portraits, such as in Dombey and Son where Mr. Perch is described “shutting the door, as precisely and carefully as if he were not coming back for a week.”1 The portrait of Uriah Heep in David Copperfield (1850) is a classic of humorous description: “I observed that he had not such a thing as a smile about him, and that he could only widen his mouth and make two hard creases down his cheeks, one on each side, to stand for one.”2

The satire Dickens lavishes on the upper class in Bleak House is often laugh-out-loud funny. For example, his description in chapter twelve of Sir Leicester: “Sir Leicester is generally in a complacent state, and rarely bored. When he has nothing else to do, he can always contemplate his own greatness. It is a considerable advantage to a man, to have so inexhaustible a subject. After reading his letters, he leans back in his corner of the carriage, and generally reviews his importance to society.”

You can use the same techniques employed to such good effect by Dickens to add outright humor to your work. The way to take advantage of this device—introducing humor into your story—is to develop your sense of the incongruous. Try to exaggerate your characters a bit and use a satirical tone. If all else fails, read Dickens and underline passages that strike you as particularly funny. Then use a similar tone or approach when describing one of your own characters, especially people you wish to poke fun at. This type of humor will not, it is important to underscore, detract from the high tone or seriousness of your subject. Instead, it will add a much appreciated human element to otherwise serious writing.

[18 Tips for Aspiring TV Comedy and Joke Writers]

Make Them Cry

The second element of Dickens’ famous dictum revolves around his use of pathos, or strong emotion. As Aristotle pointed out in his Poetics, emotional appeals are one of the chief devices of the orator and, by extension, of the novelist. Novels weren’t invented back in Aristotle’s time, but drama was, and he pointed to examples from the ancient Greek dramatists where the evocation of pity and fear in the audience was planned in advance by the dramatist. In a similar way a novelist can learn from Dickens how to make readers feel strong emotions.

When Esther learns that her mother is Lady Dedlock, she is surprised. But Dickens knows that surprise is not enough, and he milks the scene for all it’s worth. He knows that a mother and child relationship will be moving, especially one in which a child discovers its mother after a long absence during which the girl was in ignorance. But he has the skill to ratchet up the emotion by having Lady Dedlock tell Esther that they must never speak again and that she (Lady Dedlock) cannot give any help to Esther. Here is a scene calculated to wrench the tears from even a hardened heart.

Our jaded age may find it harder to cry, but Dickens was a master of situations that bring on the sympathy needed to cause reader emotion. The very memorable death of Nell had Americans lining the docks to get their hands on the installment of the magazine with the resolution of that part of The Old Curiosity Shop (1841). But Dickens worked himself into a state of near despair to write the scene, turning away offers from friends to visit. In composing that scene he probably went back in his mind to a trauma he had suffered when he watched helplessly as seventeen-year-old Mary Hogarth, his sister-in-law, died in his arms some years earlier.3 The message is clear: to create emotion you must feel emotion. Do not hesitate to use memories from your own life; indeed, you must do so to produce real emotion on the page. Transmuting your own experiences, you will create art and affect your readers as deeply as you yourself have been affected.

Writing With Emotion Tension & ConflictConnecting with the reader on an emotional level is a vital
skill that every writer must learn to master. Whatever the genre,
emotion, tension, conflict, and pathos are essential to hooking the
reader’s interest from the very first page. Writing With Emotion, Tension,
& Conflict gives writers a variety of intensive tools and techniques for
accomplishing those goals.

Make Them Wait

I have to admit that mystery novels were never my cup of tea. My mother and sister dote on them, but I usually find them rather formulaic; I honestly couldn’t care less who killed who, and the characters don’t interest me since they’re simply vehicles for the story to reach a conclusion. I say this not to try to convince anyone not to read mysteries but rather to illustrate that even writers who couldn’t care less about mysteries should pay attention when Dickens tells them that an element of mystery—an element, mind you; merely an element—is essential to a well-told story. Who am I, after all, to argue with Dickens!

In a wonderful little book, Charles Dickens as Serial Novelist (1967), Archibald C. Coolidge Jr. advances the very convincing proposition that the serial form of publication put certain pressures on Dickens that forced him to solve a typical novelist’s problems (such as how to maintain reader interest) in strikingly bold ways. What this means is very good for you. It means that Dickens was forced to use his talent to discover and use techniques integral to the novel in a way that are so bold, so striking, and so exaggerated that other writers should find studying his work almost a textbook example of what to do, how to craft stories, and how to create characters people will remember—and care about.4 One of his most important techniques and one which is often overlooked by writers who prefer literary fiction is the use of an element of mystery and suspense. If, like me, you don’t respond well to mystery, you may discount its effectiveness in a mainstream story. But this would be a mistake! It behooves us to learn from the master. Dickens called it his mystery story technique. “He solved the problem of the constant need for advance in plot by creating a mystery … which had alternating sublines.”5 An example of the mystery that runs through Bleak House (1853) is the identity of Esther’s mother. The story also unfolds with many mysterious doings by Lady Dedlock and her husband’s attorney, Tulkinghorn. By the time the truth is revealed, the reader is worked up to a fever pitch of interest. The resolution of the mystery is revealed when Lady Dedlock tells Esther that she is her mother. The scene is given added poignancy when Lady Dedlock warns Esther that they must never speak again! Not only does Esther find her mother in a dramatic way, at the end of a big mystery plot, but she loses her in the same scene. Leave it to Dickens to twist the loose ends of his stories together, interweaving the resolution of the mystery with the fate of Esther.

[Tighten the Tension in Your Novel]

To provide a mystery in your mainstream novel, you might choose some aspect of the story that can be concealed from the reader. Then play the part of the omniscient writer, who knows all, and do not reveal too much … only tell as much as is needed.

You can use the same Dickensian mystery story technique in your own work by purposefully withholding crucial information, such as who a friend (or enemy) of your hero really is. You can even lead readers in the wrong direction, provided one of the characters legitimately believes the wrong thing, as Pip does when he suspects that his benefactor is Miss Havisham.

Sometimes, the less you tell the more readers love it. So, by all means, make them wait.


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